The Mag This Week

Actually, last week. But whatever.

Fiction aimed at women tends to be of two kinds: weepy and fluffy. Both varieties were reviewed in last week’s page (along with an interview with the authors of book that’s a guide to getting a divorce. Just ’cause) and fluffy proved to be way better than weepy.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, reviewed by Apoorva Dutt, sounds like debutant Ayana Mathis desperately wants to be this generation’s Toni Morrison. Not quite an easy task.

Joanna Lobo reviewed I Kissed A Frog And Other Stories by Rupa Gulab. She loved it.

I offered my tuppence on Those Pricey Thakur Girls, the latest from Anuja Chauhan.  The unedited text of the review is below, but first, a bit of blathering.

Annie Zaidi has written a piece on how chick lit is pockmarked with stigmata. It’s a persuasive piece but I have to say, I don’t quite agree with everything she’s written (though I do like the term “lad lit”). I do agree that if women authors are to be painted into a gendered genre because they write about women, then male authors who write only about men deserve to be cornered similarly. It’s not that this doesn’t happen. Take Eric Van Lustbader, for instance. I suspect he was considered very much a gentlemen’s favourite. The gender divide exists in literary fiction too, but let me not loiter away from the point. Men usually don’t suffer labelling even when they write almost exclusively about men — agreed. But chick lit as the stuff of shame and dismissal? No. I’ve done a quick poll in my immediate circles. None of the women are ashamed of reading this genre. There’s more shame for having read the collected works of Chetan Bhagat, from what I can see. Of course, this is not conclusive. Annie’s writing from her perspective just as I’m writing from mine.

My point of view probably has to do with the fact that I’ve always had a soft spot for chick lit and romantic comedies, both in cinema as well as literature. I’ve never been ashamed of this because some of the smartest people I know love the genre. My grandfather, for example, was a physicist, enormously erudite and read complex philosophy for fun. He also LOVED Georgette Heyer and Barbara Cartland. He’d wheedle my mum for her copies, much to her exasperation. My mother and my aunt have wall-to-wall shelves stuffed with Mills & Boons. They’re both ridiculously intelligent. (The only reason I can’t say the same for myself is that I regularly donate books to Welfare for Stray Dogs.) In fact, every bright mind I know is a connoisseur of some sort of popular, pulpy fiction.

When you read enough of the genre, you realise how varied it is (which is something Annie doesn’t acknowledge) and how difficult it is to write good chick lit. I’m sure the same applies to good pulp in general. It’s very easy to write it badly, which is what most people do. To write it well means a writer gets to be far less self-indulgent than an author of literary fiction. Part of my grouse with what is held up as popular fiction in India (in English) is that it isn’t as smartly written as English pop fiction from America and the UK. Take the Indian Mills & Boons for example. They’re significantly worse written than their Australian, British and American counterparts. As far as my experience goes, from plot to characterisation, the Indian writers’ books are weaker in every aspect.

But that’s a separate matter. The point is, I don’t think writers of pulpy, lad lit are considered somehow wiser because they write about men or that they’re transformed into something more intelligent and/or respectable because they have columns. They have chosen to share their spoutings with us via certain publications. This is their choice and that of editors. Should writers of chick lit choose to do so, I’m quite sure they’d be offered similar platforms. I don’t think women writers don’t get columns because writing chick lit gives them some sort of blonde aura. Are they “railing at the perjorative chick lit” as Annie put it in her article? I don’t think they need to. I appreciate someone not liking the term “chick lit”, but then again, “boyfriend” does sort of infantilise any man who is in a romantic, unmarried relationship, doesn’t it? The term may not be perfect, but it doesn’t carry connotations of disrespect unless one chooses to impose such a perspective on the term. The people who look down on chick lit remind me of all those who think science fiction or fantasy is for kids. It’s laughable. And it says more about the limited horizons of the haters than it does for the genre.

The fact of the matter is that if women will feel ashamed of a genre aimed at only us, then that’s our problem as a gender. Let’s not blame anyone else for it. (And if Chetan Bhagat makes it personal on a panel, why not serve it right back to him? I’m sure he can handle it.) Women writers don’t need to write non-fiction to prove they’re smart. When they write good fiction, popular or literary, they’ve done their bit. And those who don’t read good chick lit because they’re afraid of being considered silly, your life is duller for this decision. My advice: pick up a book like Those Pricey Thakur Girls.

Those Pricey Thakur Girls

tptgAlright, let’s not kid ourselves. Dylan Singh Shekhawat isn’t particularly rooted in realism. He is “tall and sinewy and muscular”, has “lean dimples”, long eyelashes, unruly hair and a torso made up of “muscular toffee-brown bits”. He’s also smart, a journalist and an unrepentant flirt. In short, he’s like no Indian man you know, but who cares? Rhonda Byrne said in The Secret that if you can visualise what you want, chances are the universe will manifest your desires. Fortunately for many single Indian women, Anuja Chauhan has done the visualising for you. Yours is only to read, and dream on.
Chauhan won readers’ hearts with The Zoya Factor and Battle for Bittora, and her fan base will only grow with her latest, Those Pricey Thakur Girls. As aficionados of chick lit will know, high quality fluffy romantic comedy is very hard to write. The story must follow predictable patterns and yet hold a reader’s attention. The storytelling should be light-hearted but intelligent. The characters must be lovable, largely divorced from reality and yet credible. Most Indian attempts at chick lit have displayed about as much fluffiness as a tetrapod does, which is why Chauhan deserves three cheers. For the third time in a row, she’s cracked the rom-com code and given readers a story that’s as cuckoo as it is cute.
Set in pre-liberalisation New Delhi, Those Pricey Thakur Girls is a simple love story with some complications and many eccentric characters. Justice Laxmi Narayan Thakur (retd) and his wife live in a bungalow in Hailey Road, New Delhi, with Debjani and Eshwari, two of their five daughters. (The other three are married and live elsewhere.) When we meet Debjani, or Dabbu, she’s on the threshold of fame because she’s been selected as a newsreader on the state television channel. Her prince charming is Dylan Singh Shekhawat, the son of Laxmi Narayan’s friend Saahas Singh Shekhawat. Despite his commitment to being Casanova, Dylan falls hook line and sinker for Dabbu and Dabbu’s pulse pitter-patters simply at the thought of Dylan. But of course, before happily ever-afters, there must be complications. So Chauhan throws in some sly villains, a touch of politics, one lunatic aunt, a sturdy shamiana and other whoops and whirls into Dabbu and Dylan’s story.
There’s more than a hint of Pride and Prejudice in Those Pricey Thakur Girls, but Chauhan isn’t a lazy storyteller. To Austen’s classic elements Chauhan adds some solid Delhi masala, including references to the Sikh riots, the snobbery of St Stephen’s alumni, a stolen kiss on a stairway and an obsession with body building. Those Pricey Thakur Girls bubbles with delightful mirth and Chauhan has the rare talent of being able to endow every character with a distinctive voice. And here’s the best part: this isn’t the last we’re seeing of the Thakurs. Chauhan’s next book, The House That BJ Built, will take us back to the Thakurs’ Hailey Road bungalow. Until then, we’ll settle for visualising that delicious Christian Rajput, Dylan Singh Shekhawat.

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